Elliott Walden is a successful thoroughbred racehorse trainer. He’s the president and CEO of racing operations for WinStar Farm near Versailles, Kentucky. In 1998, he conditioned Victory Gallop to a win in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the U.S. Triple Crown series.
Elliott says he can never tell how horses will react coming down the homestretch. That’s when they’re tired and the crowd noise becomes deafening. That’s when they’re surrounded with other horses crowding them and they feel the sting of the jockey’s whip. Elliott says you never know how the horse will react to that moment of tension and adversity. He added, “You can measure speed, but you can’t measure heart. That’s when the great ones show their mettle.”
It’s often the home stretch when Christians show their heart also. The Bible makes it clear that the older we get the more pain and suffering we’re probably going to experience. Moses wrote, “Our days may come to seventy years or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Solomon wrote, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, I find no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes. 12:1).
Generally speaking, the longer you live, the more you can expect trouble and the less pleasurable it is to be alive. That’s not being morbid, that’s just facing reality. Life is hard. People die, friends disappoint, children rebel, bodies decay, money runs out, cars wreck, hurricanes hit.
Sadly we can all point to examples of Christians who faltered before they reached the finish line. Older couples in the church divorce, respected leaders stumble. Preachers and Bible college personnel go south spiritually or doctrinally. You can measure education and service, but you can’t measure heart.
Jesus warned Simon Peter that his last days weren’t going to be easy. “’I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go’. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:18, 19).
Peter was cautioned that his latter years were going to be years of restricted freedom, increased dependency, and intense suffering. Church tradition says Peter was imprisoned for his faith and sentenced to die by crucifixion. Tradition also says that Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he didn’t consider himself worthy of dying the way Jesus died.
Simon Peter was coming down the homestretch of life when he wrote his first epistle. He teaches us that some suffering is inevitable and we should expect it. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
Some Christians are shocked when something bad happens to them. They say, “You just never think it could happen to you!” Really? Where have you been when others around you experienced pain? Or they get angry at God and threaten to deny the faith. “Why would God let this happen to me?” they moan. Really? Have you never read the book of Job?
If we are going to come down the stretch with vigor and vitality we would be wise to anticipate some painful experiences. We better learn to cope with adversity or we’re likely to drop out or falter embarrassingly before the finish line. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Barney Long was a deacon in our church and a respected business and community leader. In his early 60s, his doctor notified him that he had life-threatening cancer which needed aggressive treatment. I called to tell him I’d be praying for him. His response was impressive. He said, “I’ve been blessed all my life. Truthfully, life has been pretty smooth for me. But I knew my time was coming. Just pray that I handle it right. I want to be a positive witness for Christ through my trial.”
That’s a mature reaction. That’s the heart of a champion! And Barney has faithfully used the last decade to better appreciate the suffering of Christ and be a positive witness for him. C.S. Lewis said that pain was God’s megaphone—God shouts to us in our pain. But pain is also God’s spotlight—people carefully observe how we react and whether our faith is real or phony. Sometimes we can glorify God more in a year’s suffering than we can in a lifetime of ease.
“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2018 by Bob Russell. Permission to copy this column may be obtained by writing Emily Engelhardt at firstname.lastname@example.org or Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenship Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243. Find Bob’s books and writings online (www.livingWord.org).